Sunday, May 31, 2009

A teachable point of view

Over my 20+ year business career I have had the chance to work for a wide variety of manager and leaders.  As I mentioned in my previous post "Three impact points of leadership", there is a significant difference in the work of management vs  the work of leadership.  In hindsight, I have had a number of bosses over the years who "got" that truth and maybe a larger number who unfortunately did not.  One such leader who I had the chance to work under and learn from for a few years was Neville Isdell, when he returned to the Coca-Cola Company in the role as CEO and Chairman.

As Neville came back from retirement in 2004, he lead an effort to reinvigorate a large global company and bottling system and re-establish a strategic direction for the future success of the Coca-Cola enterprise all over the world.  In that effort, he gathered a number of executives from around the world to work on what would become a strategic roadmap called "The Manifesto for Growth."  I had the pleasure and honor to be one of those executives at the time and to this day it was one of the most dynamic learning experiences of my career.  I am not going to go into any details about the content or the process of that experience, both of which were unique and inspiring.  What I do want to share is one quick story from one of those meetings that has dramatically altered my view on the role and nature of leaders.

As part of the process I mentioned above, Neville lead a series of meetings/workshops that gathered 125+/- executives from around the world.  The meetings were mentally and physically exhausting, and it felt like the work we were doing was crucial/vital to the future success of the enterprise.  It was at the end of one of those days that there was an open Q&A session where one weary participant asked what seemed like a simple question, "Neville, these meetings would go a lot faster if you just told us what you were thinking and we then could work on how to make that happen".  While I am certain this individual verbalized what was on other's minds, we were all surprised by the intensity of the response.  Neville came up on stage and with a strong voice quickly remarked that he didn't need leaders of Coca-Cola who needed to be told what to do!  He needed leaders with a point of view, no..." a teachable point of view".  Somehow this phrase hung in the air that night and I can still hear it ringing in my ears today.  Leaders with a "teachable point of view"... leaders as teachers.

Now this idea that great leaders should be great teachers doesn't sound very revolutionary.  Since my "epiphany", I have started to see this idea commented on and reinforced in many forums.   One such example is in the area of "Six Sigma/Lean Manufacturing" where there are numerous references to the idea of leader as teacher.  What has been new for me is to think about what makes a great teacher and how can I bring that into the workplace every day.  Think in your mind who some of your best teachers have been from your days at high school, college or graduate school.  As I have done this, a very clear images and memories come to mind.  I then thought about their common traits, their similarities (which is hard when you are thinking about a scottish professor of systematic theology and a southern professor of strategy).  

Here are a few of my reflections:
1.) Competence.  These folks all knew the subject matter/material, deeply!  They knew what they were talking about and didn't have to work very hard so that we students all knew that THEY knew what they were talking about.  
2.) Challenging.  They all set very high expectations both for themselves and clearly for us as students.  Somehow it was those expectations that became OUR expectations for ourselves.  We weren't working hard in a course just for the professor's appreciation, we started doing it for OURSELVES!
3.) Fairness.  Whether we were star students, average performers, or less, we were treated commonly and equitably.  From the grading of exams, feedback on papers, discussions in seminars, we felt that we were all given the same chance/opportunity to learn and succeed.
4.) Availability.  While it was not always as much as some of us needed, my best teachers had time for us students.  Time to ask the silly questions, time to make the naive point, whether in class, in their office, over coffee (or a beer) or in the hall.  We felt like we could be heard.
5.) Student orientation.  My best teachers somehow made it clear that the class wasn't about "them", is was about "us".  Even in times of significant lectures the best teachers would work to draw the students into the lecture, fostering (or sometimes creating) debate to advance "our" learning.

None of these five themes are very unusual, but they ring true for me when I reflect on my best teachers from my past.  What gets interesting is to use these five themes to assess the leadership around you.  If you have the honor to lead teams, how competent are you?  Do you set high expectations?  How fair are you with your team?  etc.  Do you have a "teachable point of view"?  Are you a great teacher?
If you are an individual contributor, are you learning the skills that will allow you to be available to your "class"?  Will you be "student" oriented?  Do you have a "teachable point of view"?  Are you a great teacher?

Let these questions linger as you reflect on your own situation.  Give yourself the freedom to always look for ways to learn, grow, build skills and become a better teacher! 

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